On Relative Values and Co-operation

Using the scientific principles (make an observation, form a question, form a hypothesis, conduct an experiment – or more -, analyse data and draw a conclusion), Ben Ambridge builds a strong case for the intelligence and even conscience of fellow species in his book Are you smarter then a chimpanzee? . What author suggests is that “by exploring the similarities and differences between humans and other animals, we can begin to understand when and how our abilities, our likes and dislikes, and even our foibles and mental blind spots arouse in the course of evolution“. Because according to Darwin: when it comes to the differences between humans and other animals, everything is relative and everything is a relative: we are all part of one big family“.

But since animals show remarkable ability to understands words and even phrases, to count or even to communicate specific wishes through sign language or body movements – as proved through specific experiments, Ben Ambridge explains why can’t we talk to the animals: “Research conducted by Mike Tomasello, who has studied language learning in both children and chimpanzees, suggests that what non-human species just don’t get is that language is fundamentally co-operative, almost altruistic, in nature. Doing something for the benefit of someone else, even if it involves no personal cost, is completely alien to chimpanzees … they simply haven’t evolved in such a way as to be capable of considering the altruistic option in the first place. Virtually all of the mankind’s greatest achievements, such as science, governments and the arts, are based fundamentally on co-operation. If humans are qualitatively different from other animal species – and throughout the book author shows that this is far from clear that this is the case – then an inclination to co-operation (at large scale – think at entire countries, monetary system and/or organizations -) is perhaps the best candidate for that special something that makes us unique.

Ben Ambridge – Are you smarter then a chimpanzee?

are you smarter

One step further into analysis, moving from comparing other species to people to comparing (still existing) traditional societies of hunter-gatherers to modern humans, to separate what is nature-influenced into our today behavior and what is rather socially and culturally biased, is offered by Jareed Diamond in his highly recommended book The World until Yesterday. You will find out also how our modern life style influences our health, how we approach competition and co-operation in societies by comparison with native tribes, how the justice systems evolved to what it is today and sometimes on social progress made, like the treatment for elderly people. This book answers to a lot of WHYs on our modern life and society, helps us understand where we come from and what we have lost or gained on the way!

Jareed DiamondThe World until Yesterday

Jareed

Weather our unique large-scale co-operation ability is enough to save us today from choking into our own smoke, or save the planet’s biodiversity for our own sake, remains to be seen. Today countries are fully integrated into a capitalistic system that externalizes costs to nature for its short-term benefits, but are more divided then ever on what should be the longer-term priorities of humanity and future generations on this planet and agree on the way forward. Do not count on the appearance of well-being and scientific progress to date, humans still have a lot to proof, after all we have only been around for 3 million years (counting from the moment when we left the trees), whereas other species like dinosaurs flourished for 200 million years (before being wiped out by an asteroid)…So far our ability to co-operate only came at a cost for ecosystem and its biodiversity and likely for future human generations…

Shared Wisdom

Quotes from Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910), one of the greatest writers of all times (War and Peace and Anna Karenina are among his masterpieces), and also famous, among many others, for his advocacy against war and meat consumption, for giving up his fortune into helping others or to supporting the causes and ideals he believed in, and for his extensive search for answers when it comes to one’s life meaning and soul, through observation and reflection:

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“There are two ways by which you can understand the external world.

The first way is the crudest and surest: to understand the external world through the five senses. If this were the only way, then it would not instil in us an image of the world as we know it, but it would merely be one of meaningless chaos.

The other way is to get to know oneself through love for oneself and then, through this love, to get to know other living creatures and substances: people, animals, plants, rocks, heavenly bodies, and also, in the same way, the relationship of these beings and substances among themselves, and from these relationship to build up a picture of the world as we know it…”

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The sense of joy which arises from our feeling of pity and compassion for animals far outweigh any pleasure which otherwise might derive from hunting or eating of meat

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The highest race of animals, the human race,…ought to unite into one whole like a swarm of bees, …, it should strive towards continence and not towards inflaming desire – to which the whole system of life is now directed…

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“Although it appears mankind is occupied with such matters as trade, treaties, wars, the science and the arts, it is actually engaged in only one matter that is really important: to make clear the moral laws by which it lives. And such clarification is not only mankind’s most important concern, but the only one that it should be engaged in”

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The more people believe that some external force, working independently of their will, can bring change and improvement to their lives, the less likely it will be for such change and improvement to take place!

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“We are indissolubly spiritually linked not only with all people but with all living creatures!”

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“However low we have fallen, we can always keep the ideal in view, and set our sights on that!”

from Leo Tolstoy, “A Calendar of Wisdom

a Calendar of Wisdom

Micro worlds

Microbes – bacteria, moulds, viruses, protozoa, and algae – are present in every environment, living in soil, water and air. Some microbes cause disease but most are vital to life on Earth. Among other things, they break down organic matter so that it can be recycled back into the ecosystem, hence the famous saying: “It is the microbes that will have the last word“, by Louis Pasteur.

Trillions of microbes also live on and in the human body. The most common of these are beneficial bacteria, which aid the digestion of food, produce vitamins, and help immune system to find and attack more harmful microbes. Scientists did not understand microbes until they could see them. The first observations began in the 17th century, using the recently invented microscope.

Viruses, more in spotlight at present due to famous Covid19 pandemic are by far the most abundant biological entities on Earth and they outnumber all the others put together. They infect all types of cellular life including animals, plants, bacteria and fungi. Different types of viruses can infect only a limited range of hosts and many are species-specific. Some, such as smallpox virus for example, can infect only one species – in this case humans, and are said to have a narrow host range. Other viruses, such as rabies virus, can infect different species of mammals and are said to have a broad range. The viruses that infect plants are harmless to animals, and most viruses that infect other animals are harmless to humans. But as we destroy forests and consume wild animals (especially in China and Africa), it is expected for humans to get more exposed to viruses, which otherwise would have lived in a state of balance within their ecosystem.

As per Wikipedia, a virus is a submicroscopic infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of an organism. Viruses are considered by some biologists to be a life form, because they carry genetic material, reproduce, and evolve through natural selection, although they lack key characteristics (such as cell structure) that are generally considered necessary to count as life. Because they posses some but not all such qualities, viruses have been described as “organisms at the edge of life”, and as replicators.

Viruses are an important natural means of transferring genes between different species, which increases genetic diversity and drives evolution. It is thought that viruses played a central role in early evolution, before the diversification of the last universal common ancestor into bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes. Viruses are still one of the largest reservoirs of unexplored genetic diversity on Earth.

What we all experience today with the coronavirus must be also a lesson of humbleness, showing how vulnerable we are as a species, especially in an ever more global world, in front of an invisible virus, how quickly situation can turn pandemic, how many lives can cost and how even more vulnerable, artificial and unreliable is the economic system we depend on. Time will tell, how much we have learned from this lesson, or we miss another good opportunity to change for better!

virus

Wildlife as a symbol

Wildlife may be under pressure today, but seems it will always exist as a symbol. Homo-sapiens is a story-teller– as per the famous historian and writer Yuval Noah Harari – and most of his journey has been inspired-by and depended on nature and wildlife, and starting with early days, our ancestors tried to tell the story of survival, courage and admiration, through cave paintings, which survived thousands of years.

cave.art-Cueva.de.Manos  cave painting

Many wildlife icons become symbols (of power, of courage, of bravery, etc), and myths and traditions were born in multiple cultures, today having an animal representation for many aspects and ideologies of our modern life and personality traits, allowing human brain to continuously create meaning and decode these symbols through both denotation and connotation.

Many countries have wildlife icons as their national symbol, on flags or national currency notes or coins. Through-out time, wildlife has been immortalized through art, paintings, stories, objects of great value made gifts at time of emperors, permanent skin tattoos or even mummified in Egyptian ancient civilization time. This attention wasn’t all beneficial for the real wildlife, who were killed for various parts of their bodies to be traded by modern humans. Especially Asiatic culture has been particularly destructive here, through the believe that consuming particular wildlife parts will give you certain magic powers.

Today Wildlife symbols sell, especially to the parents in search for toys or clothes for their young ones. While this should be good, at least for the educational part, somehow neither kids nor parents connect the symbols with the real world and state of wildlife, and most contact with wildlife comes from visiting the local ZOOs, which are the least ethical place keep wildlife for  human entertainment.

wildlife_sells

How we want the Wildlife story to end? Today we are still writing it, as it is not too late for many species to be permanently turned into symbols only…But time is running short! We need to better learn to use wildlife symbols and share the wildlife impressive stories, to appeal and educate others and reconnect to nature and its wildlife, as well as, according to National Geographic, to recycle, volunteer, donate money and join wildlife-protection organizations or contact government representative (through specific petitions signing). If we want us humans to become a symbol of wisdom, and not one of shame for being responsible for the mass extinction of Earth’s biodiversity, we need to find a way to contribute, each of us! Choose your way today!

NG

Chernobyl’s accidental Wildlife Sanctuary

According to Yuval Noah Harari‘s latest book “21 lessons for 21st century“, there are 3 main risks that humanity is facing today: nuclear, climate change and technology disruption.

The first one, the nuclear risk, is recently reclaiming people’s attention with “Chernobyl“, a recent HBO production, that tells the story of the 1986 nuclear accident in former Soviet Union, one of the worst man-made catastrophes in history, and the sacrifices made to save Europe from a greater unimaginable disaster.

But what is less known is that in 1988, two years after the Chernobyl disaster, a closed nature reserve, Palieski State Radioecological Reserve, was established in Belarus to isolate the most affected territory of the country. While the area will remains inappropriate for human habitation for hundreds more years, wildlife has since flourished there. The reserve hosts many rare and endangered species, which thrive here thanks to the mere absence of humans. A complete ecosystem, the reserve is now home to large predators as Brown Bears, Wolves (allegedly 7 times the number of wolves outside the  the reserve) or Lynx, as well as herbivores like Elk, Moose and prospering herds of European Bison and Wild Horses (Przewalski’s horses – released in the Zone after the accident), and rare birds as Greater Spotted Eagle and Eagle Owl and White-tailed Eagle.

More than 30 years later, the area is the nearest that Europe has to a wilderness and gives key lessons on how wildlife doesn’t need us, and how nature can recover from worst man-made disasters to its primeval state, if only allowed to do that!

Chernobyl, Nearly 30 Years Since Catastrophe

MEGAFAUNA

The global climate during Pleistocene, from 1.8 million years ago until 10.000 years ago, alternated repeatedly between hot periods and cold phases when ice covered much of the world’s land masses. An adaptation frequently found among fauna during these glacial periods is an increase in size – when a living being becomes bigger, its volume which is where the body generates heat, grows more quickly than its surface through which this heat is dissipated – this is the age of Megafauna, time of an incredibly diverse and fascinating set of large mammals species, which are now extinct! Among most iconic species are the mammoth and woolly rhino (Eurasia), the dire-wolf , the saber-toothed cat Smilodon and the Americal lion (North America), the cave bear and the short-faced bear, giant marsupials (Australia), the giant deer, etc. This was precisely the world that Homo Sapiens stepped into as we spread beyond Africa, all the way to America. Had we never appeared, would those now-missing mammals still be here? And will they ever be back?

Except Africa, where humans and Megafauna evolved together, and African animals had the chance to adjust as our presence increased, learning how to be wary of us and evolving in ways to elude us, the Megafauna on the other continents was totally taken by surprise by the new invasive species, hunting in groups, mastering the fire and the tools to hunt them from a safety distance!

Today we can only see remnants of this lost world in natural science museums. But will one day some of these species be resurrected with the help of modern gene technology and biotechnology, which are progressing so incredibly fast? And where would they fit on a planet populated by almost 7.7 bn people today? The idea of a Jurassic kind of Park, but with mammoths instead of dinosaurs, appeals to many scientists (and businessmen), even if for curiosity, to push the limits of creation and see how far they can get (or for fame or profit)…Let’s see (I recommend an excellent book for who wants to learn more: Torill Kornfeldt‘s The re-Origin of Species)!

In the meantime, we can learn from history and make sure we won’t drive into extinction other species or the entire ecosystem we rely upon, to be wise enough to stop the Holocene 6th mass species extinction (also known as Anthropocene extinction or Quaternary extinction event), that we humans started with Megafauna, and continues with today Wildlife species at accelerated speed!

pleistocen fauna

cave bearsdr

Giant Deermegafauna 2 pleistocen

Pollinators: what’s all the buzz about?

Pollination is the transfer of pollen from a male part of a plant to a female part of a plant, enabling later fertilization and the production of fruits and/or seeds. According to latest Living Planet Report 2018 by WWF, the majority of flowering plants need pollination, as much as “from an average of 78% in temperate-zone communities to 94% in tropical communities“!

Between 100,000 and 200,000 species of animal act as pollinators of the world’s 250,000 species of flowering plant, as per Wikipedia. The majority of these pollinators are insects (more than 20,000 species of bees, many other types of insects e.g. flies, butterflies, moths, wasps and beetles), but about 1,500 species of birds and mammals also visit flowers and may transfer pollen between them. Our food production depends heavily upon these pollinators – more than 75% of the leading global food crops. From economic point of view, pollination increases the global value of crop production by US$235-577 billion per year to growers alone and keeps prices down for consumers by ensuring stable supplies.

Agricultural intensification (through use of pesticides) and urban expansion is one of a number of key drivers of pollinator loss, especially when natural areas, that provide foraging and nesting resources, are degraded or disappear. The abundance, diversity and health of pollinators is also threatened by a number of other drivers including a changing climate, air and noise pollution, invasive species and emerging diseases and pathogens (as I learned in a local crash-course I recently attended – photos here -, domestic bees in Europe are now entirely dependent on humans for medication and protection from invasive parasites, from which they have no natural immunity).

Pollinators are the foundation for a stable ecosystem. If only a few species of plants depended on pollinators the overall effect would not be as devastating however, but this is not the case! As the artistic graffiti shows below, this is bad news for all ecosystem, including wildlife and people, the world as we know it would vanish! In this regard, to help humans be more environmentally responsible, we made few suggestions to follow (on our @Eco page) in our daily lives, to avoid such a terrible probability, knowing the risk is real and time is running out!

population counts.jpg

Famous quote to remember: “If humans were to suddenly disappear, the Earth would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10.000 years ago. But if insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” – Edward O. Wilson

Power of example

There is nothing more pleasant than a walk in the country side, on a sunny autumn day! Very fast you come to accept the slower pace of life – meaning the normal pace of life, the one that exists outside office and city life but you are not very familiar with lately – and you come to terms with nature, which gets along its way regardless. This time of year, trees and wildlife prepare for the colder season, already the lower temperature at night and shorter days have turned the leaves yellow or red, just before falling on the ground and turning into rich black soil, from which fresh life will flourish next spring, resuming relentlessly the cycle of life! The sheep are coming down from the mountains to lower winter grounds, a nice spectacle to watch, still unfolding in many corners of the world, whereas some wildlife species have their underground borrows ready, storing latest provisions from the rich autumn menu – forest fruits, acorn, nuts, herbs etc, in preparation for hibernation!

clean path 3sheepclean path 2

yellow treeburrowred tree

However one thing disturbed the picture and my peace of mind, the plastics left behind by the ubiquitous consumer. But I did come prepared, as this is not something new I come across in nature, so I rolled my sleeves, dived in, and almost filled the two large bags I brought with me, leaving behind a clean trail, and making sure I showed my capture to all the passer-by, existing consumer and maybe, future environmentalists! Power of example, you find it in any specialty books, and doesn’t apply to office activities only, nature can also benefit, if you are willing to contribute!

garbage

Ideally this plastic can now be recycled, but at least it wont turn into micro-plastic to be swollen by births or fish, once it reaches rivers and eventually seas and oceans!

At the end of the day, I was very happy I could turn a favor to the Nature, after spending such a wonderful day outdoor, so I not only relaxed, but also came back home with a great sense of satisfaction! Try it sometimes, you will understand what I mean! 😉

Wildlife crossings

During the early 20th century, with the development of the internal combustion engine and the automobile, infrastructure had to be adapted. As Wendell Berry puts it in his “The World-Ending Fire” book, we moved FROM paths, described as a little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place, a sort of ritual of familiarity, a form of contact with a known landscape TO roads, whose reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste, wishing to avoid contact with landscape, seeking to go over the country rather than through it, its tendency being to translate place into space in order to traverse it with least effort. A road is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way.

FROM paths:

path1path 2

Today’s road infrastructure looks as science-fiction already, keeping us disconnected from life beyond the windshields and, as Wendell Berry mentions, a road advances by destruction of forest, or in case of modern roads, by destruction of topography.

TO roads:

Moscow infraThailand infra 2

The development of roads affects wildlife by altering and isolating habitat and populations, deterring the movement of wildlife, and resulting in extensive wildlife mortality, roadkill becoming a common sight in most industrialized nations. Very large numbers of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates are killed on the world’s roads every day, the number in the United States being estimated at a million per day, an estimated 1.25 million insurance claims are filed annually due to collisions with deer, elk, or moose, amounting to 1 out of 169 collision damage claims. About 350,000 to 27 million birds are estimated to be killed on European roads each year. Not to mention the number of reptiles and insects as well…This is important because of the animal suffering, loss of wild animals (paving the way to extinction for many endangered species), road safety, and the economic impact on both drivers and road management. 

What can be done? As a driver always respect the speed limit and pay attention to the warning signs, in non-urban areas. Politicians could do even more, by including in the infrastructure budgets the so called wildlife crossings, which again, are a must, considering how much asset damage and suffering can avoid not only for wildlife, but also to their voters.

deer-crossinggreen corridorsman-made-wildlife-crossing-over-highway

Have a safe drive!

Trade of Wildlife

TRAFFIC, the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, is the leading non-governmental organization working globally on the trade of wild animals and plants in the context of both biodiversity and sustainable development. As per their definition, “Wildlife trade is any sale or exchange of wild animal and plant resources by people. This can involve live animals and plants or a diverse range of products needed or prized by humans—including skins, medicinal ingredients, tourist curios, timber, fish and other food products”.

As per their data as well as other official sources ,illegal wildlife trade is widespread and constitutes one of the major illegal economic activities, comparable to the traffic of drugs and weapons. In the early 1990s, crimes against wildlife were rampant in certain parts of the United States, and poaching may have equaled or exceeded the number of animals hunted legally (report). In other parts of the world, things get even worse, with entire trans-national supply chains and organized crime behind, from the field poachers to white collar intermediaries and further to consumers, trading the rare species (dead or alive) from wilderness on various continents to insatiable consumer markets in Asia, mainly China and Vietnam. The best known are the notorious ivory trade (with long history of various consumer countries introducing import-bans, sometimes removing them – as in case of relaxation of legislation in debate during Trump administration, or producer countries as Kenya/Tanzania burning the confiscated stocks) and rhino-horns trade, also mentioned in Misha Glenny‘s Mc Mafia book, notes @Facts.

In the zone I am more familiar with, Eastern Europe, I could say, with minimum risk of generalizing, that every person with a legal license for hunting has been at least once in his lifetime a poacher. And not only persons having a gun, but also the ones setting snares in the forest, that trap wildlife for consumption, their own, their families and friends, and even for small scale skin trade on local markets (unless a more influencing middlemen is involved, that can have cross-border connections to reach foreign customers). The profile of a such an opportunistic poacher in the region is of a man (18-70 years old), poor by local economic standards, with minimum education and no stable income, living at periphery of a forest (striking similarity with Frederic Rouge’s painting, dating couple of hundreds years ago, proving some people and practices may not have changed much meanwhile).

Le_braconnier_par_Frédéric_Rouge      The Poacher by Frédéric Rouge

Legal wildlife trade is regulated by the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which currently has 183 member countries called Parties, and protects species listed under Appendix I threatened with extinction, with commercial trade in wild-caught specimens, or products derived from them, being prohibited. This rule applies to all species threatened with extinction, except in exceptional circumstances (and also explains what we have learned at Sigean, that they no longer host elephants in the park because they cannot import anymore).

TRAFFIC data:

From 2005 – 2009 the legal trade corresponded with these numbers:

  • 317,000 live birds
  • More than 2 million live reptiles
  • 2.5 million crocodile skins
  • 2.1 million snake skins
  • 73 tons of caviar
  • 1.1 million beaver skins
  • Millions of pieces of coral
  • 20,000 mammalian hunting trophies

In the 1990s the annual trade of legal animal products was $160 billion annually. In 2009 the estimated value almost doubled to $300 billion. This is a huge industry by any standard, and painful to see the scale of it and the trend evolution (even knowing that any ban, as in case of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes would just boost the black market)!

The way I see it, legal or illegal, there is no morality, or justification for exploiting other fellow species with which we are share the planet, to obtain material profit (remember less than 200 years ago, during mercantile capitalism times, even trade with human beings and slavery were considered acceptable and even encouraged for economic benefit of land lords and aristocrats, being practiced for over 250 years). Various parties are sharing the blame, with consumers at top. But once again, the main blame I assign to the current unsustainable economic system, which from birth encourages consumption, competition for resources, accumulation of wealth and prestige, and inequality among people. This, coupled with human nature, craving to have more and to sit above its peers, is a formula for disaster. Ignore this affirmation as you wish, especially the ones happy with current status quo, but in the end it will impact you, one way or the other, if we don’t start paying attention to environment, to its wildlife, and to our own consumption habits! Empathy, responsibility, accountability, conscience and compassion (for all around us, not only for yourself and peers) should define all society, not ease and oneself material interest, social status and power!

Wildlife parts, confiscated from smugglers or tourists, at display in Warsaw International Airport.